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OBITUARIES : Robert Giroux, 1914 - 2008

Publisher guided many great writers

September 06, 2008|From the Associated Press

Robert Giroux, a distinguished giant of 20th century publishing who guided and supported dozens of great writers from T.S. Eliot and Jack Kerouac to Bernard Malamud and Susan Sontag, died in his sleep early Friday morning. He was 94.

Giroux, who helped create one of the most notable publishing houses -- Farrar, Straus & Giroux -- had been in failing health and died at an assisted living facility in Tinton Falls, N.J., said Jeff Seroy, a Farrar, Straus spokesman.

Known throughout the industry for his taste and discretion, Giroux began in 1940 as an editor at Harcourt, Brace & Co. and had so great a reputation that when he left in 1955 for what was then Farrar, Straus, more than a dozen writers joined him, including Flannery O'Connor, Malamud and Eliot, a close friend.

Giroux joined Farrar as editor in chief and was made a full partner in 1964, his reserved demeanor in contrast to that of the company's boisterous founder and president, Roger Straus. Straus and Giroux thrived together even as they endlessly complained about each other, with Straus regarding Giroux as a snob, and Giroux looking upon Straus as more a businessman than a man of letters.

During Giroux's 60-year career, some of the world's most celebrated writers published works for the publisher, including Nobel Prize winners Isaac Bashevis Singer, Derek Walcott, Nadine Gordimer and Seamus Heaney. Authors were known to turn down more money from competitors for the privilege of being signed on by Farrar, Straus.

"The single most important thing to happen to this company was the arrival of Bob Giroux," Straus, who died in 2004, once said.

Even after the company sold controlling interest in 1994 to German publisher Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck, it retained its reputation as an upholder of old-fashioned standards, more attuned to lasting quality than to instant profit. Sometimes it achieved both, with such works as Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections," Jeffrey Eugenides' "Middlesex" and Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead."

Giroux was an author himself, writing "The Book Known as Q: A Consideration of Shakespeare's Sonnets." He also contributed introductions to "The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor" and to anthologies of Malamud, John Berryman and Elizabeth Bishop. But a planned memoir was never completed.

Able to work with relative freedom, Giroux was still a strong critic of contemporary publishing, which he believed had become too money-minded. "Editors used to be known by their authors," he observed in a 1981 lecture. "Now some of them are known by their restaurants."

In 1987, Giroux received a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle for his "distinguished contribution to the enhancement of American literary and critical standards." In 2002, he received an honorary prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Born in New Jersey in 1914, Giroux was a star student at Columbia University. In his mid-20s, he joined Harcourt, Brace, and was soon assigned Edmund Wilson's now-classic study on socialist thinkers, "To the Finland Station."

"Thus, at the start of my life as an editor, I experienced the rarest and most ideal situation: a manuscript needing few or no changes. This is what every editor, and author, really wants," Giroux later recalled.

But he eventually became fed up at Harcourt, "with textbooks dominating this admirable house." Giroux sought advice from Straus, a fellow Navy officer during World War II. Straus' suggestion: Come work for him.

"For me, the new firm was a breath of fresh air -- no textbooks, interesting writers, and the editors could take chances," Giroux later wrote.

Among the debut novels he worked on were Malamud's "The Natural," Jack Kerouac's "The Town and the City" and O'Connor's "Wise Blood." Giroux also edited Robert Lowell and Hannah Arendt.

But Giroux did miss out at least twice. In the early 1950s, a young writer ("very tall, dark-haired, had a horse face") arrived unannounced at the Harcourt offices with a novel about a disenchanted prep school student. Giroux was immediately interested, but a Harcourt executive overruled him, saying the publisher's textbook department had read the book and passed on it, thus rejecting J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye."

Around the same time, another young writer appeared at Harcourt, carrying what Giroux would remember as "rubbery sheets . . . teletype sheets pasted together." The author unfurled the scroll on the floor, revealing a story that ran more than 100 feet long, in a continuous paragraph.

When Giroux complained he couldn't possibly edit such a work, the writer called him a "crass idiot," rolled up his goods and hurried out.

So departed Kerouac and his manuscript for "On the Road."

Giroux was married to Carmen de Arango in 1952. They divorced in 1969. He has no immediate survivors.

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